To Affect and Be Affected

Have you ever poked a sea anemone? It’s open and fluttering its little tendrils in the brackish water, and then suddenly and without any warning, this stick comes out of nowhere, jabbing into its soft, fleshy bits. The anemone reacts, without thinking – it curls in on itself, pulling tight and protective. After a while, it might send out a few questioning tentacles at a time, searching and seeing if it’s safe again. And when it’s determined that it is safe, it will unfurl again, until the next stick descends.

This is affect at its simplest, an emotive, embodied response to stimulus. It is “the modifications of the body by which the power of acting of the body itself is increased, diminished, helped or hindered, together with the ideas of these modifications.”1 That is to say, according to Baruch Spinoza, affect is the sum of our drives, our motivations, feelings and emotions. But it is not just a mental construct; there is a physicality to affect. Our emotions exist within our body; as we have them we react instinctively – to pain and pleasure and their derivatives. There is a dynamic engagement of the body; these reactions race across our bodies prior to our experiencing the feeling related to the emotion. This can be most clearly seen in the lower-ordered vertebrates and invertebrates, which have emotional responses to pain, such as the anemone removing itself from a painful stimulus. Does this then mean that the anemone has a feeling?2 No, most likely not. It does, however, suggest the evolutionary advantage to the development of feelings; feelings became motivations to encourage the doing of things good for the emotions (and what was good for the emotions was good for the genes, and so on).

Brian Massumi says that affect is relationality, not a self having feelings but a distinctive being in and of the world. This notion of affect gives us a phenomenological3 perspective on the connections that exist between us that is grounded in the body itself. To paraphrase Maurice Merleau-Ponty, it allows us to embrace the space between us not as that which separates us from the world, but to be the medium that binds us together4. Affect becomes a reverberative process of perception and engagement, where the sea anemone acts on the environment as much as the environment acts on the sea anemone.

Affect. To affect and be affected. To touch and be touched. To produce a change in something, while a change can concurrently happen in yourself. There is often an attempt to isolate affect as a manifestation of the self, something that is internally regulated. Antonio Damasio says that

You can look at Picasso’s Guernica as intensely as you wish, for as long as you wish, and as emotionally as you wish, but nothing will happen to the painting itself. Your thoughts about it change, of course, but the object remains intact…In the case of feeling, the object itself can be changed radically.

He is saying that because the origin of feeling is internal to the mind, rather than external, the body can act directly upon that perception of feeling. And while this is undoubtedly true, the scenario he describes leaves out one situation, which is that of a person looking intently at another person. That object, the person, is not the static object of a painting, but another moving, breathing, perceiving being, and your own body of perception can act upon them, and they upon you. Affect, then, becomes a part of that interplay, that give and take that exists between us, and binds us to one another.

Affect, then, represents the whole modification of a person, both mentally and physically. It is “not a personal feelings, nor is it a characteristic; it is the effectuation of a power…that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel.”5 Affect is the unsplit mind and body, which are a functional whole too often split in an effort to scrutinize separately, to believe one disjointed from the other. But they are not separate parts resting together to create a functional being, but, paraphrasing Spinoza, are parallel aspects of the same substance. And as mind/body are not separate, but instead a being made whole by affect, that being is not isolated, and that which imparts a change in an individual being will impart change in another, through the medium that connects beings, through the beings themselves – the order and the connection of being and beings.

Sea anemone’s can live alone, but most often they live grouped together in clusters. When you poke one anemone, it acts and reacts, folding in on itself for protection. And if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that the anemones around it, while perhaps not folding in as dramatically as the poked anemone, will retract their tendrils in reaction, as well.

  1. Spinoza, Baruch. Ethics. Hafner Press, New York; 1949 []
  2. A variant of the experience of pain or pleasure as occurs for emotions; not a reference to the tactile nature of touch. []
  3. The science or study of things as they are perceived []
  4. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge, 2002. []
  5. Deleuze, Giles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; 1987. []

Puzzle Prompt

Oh dear. I’d forgotten that Parrington has wireless. It’s probably a good thing I’m (re)discovering this at the end of the quarter.

Today Karen has asked us (the CHID thesis class) to spend five minutes writing about something that is puzzling us with our thesis. So, naturally, I first check email, then LJ, reply to a LJ comment – oh shit, nothing left to do to look busy. Guess I’ll try to tackle the topic. The puzzle.

See, the thing is, I haven’t really been working on my thesis so much this quarter. I’ve spent some time on affect, and a lot of time at the beginning simply fleshing out my general ideas. But things keep getting pushed back in favour of other, more immediate things – 390, conference preparation, other classes, a social life. I find the thesis slipping to the back, and then I find myself wondering: is the thesis slipping to the back because I don’t care about it? Is it slipping to the back because I’m overwhelmed? Because it’s overwhelming? Or is it something I should actually be engaging in – is it what I want to do?

I guess that is the larger thing, tied in to the graduate school search and application process: what do I want to do? Where do I want to go, what do I want to study? Is medical ethics a right path? What about a more humanistic studies of medicine? Where would I even find that?

No wonder I’m feeling grumpy, stressed, and generally like sleeping until March.

Morning

Up early today. I fell asleep before 9pm last night, just physically drained and exhausted. The 390 focus group went much better last night, using pop culture “props” to drive conversation. I’m strongly resisting the urge to make lesson plans and powerpoints, because I don’t want to (nor should I) be the teacher for that class. But, having things to make conversation go is nice. Bride and Prejudice is a wonderfully over-the-top way to illustrate Orientalism, too.

But, true to form, I crashed off the feeling good by the time I was halfway home. I hadn’t eaten lunch, so stopped to get dinner, and it was just downhill from there. I knocked together the very barest annotated bibliography, (which I will hopefully be able to flesh out some before class today. I also need to print copies of the papers for today’s thesis class, as well as reread an article for 390. …see, there was a reason I set the alarm for 4, even if I didn’t actually get out of bed until 5am), and then crawled into bed with a book, read for about 10 minutes, closed my eyes and gave up the fight.

But I like being up at this time of day, even if it’s so difficult for me to actually get out of bed in that initial instant. There’s something ever so serene and peaceful about the world, as it’s just me and a few other souls moving. I have just a few lights on, and (freshly showered and dressed) am sitting in the middle of my ever so comfortable new bed, listening to variations of Om Mani Padme Hum being sung over the stereo. The repetitive chanting, the peace and quiet of morning, the slight tinge of saltwater on the breeze – if only I could capture this feeling and always carry it with me. Right now, the world is busy and crowded and chaotic, but in a good way; it’s a way that energizes me and keeps me moving. I have the faith in myself that it will all be done and done well… if only that hung around with me until the end of the day!

Progress

I’ve discovered the oddest thing – if I read something complex aloud, I’ll have a much better chance of understanding it. I think it has to do with levels of engagement; I have to put more of myself into something if I’m reading it as well as listening to myself, and it activates different areas of the brain. It makes sense, since I’ve always learned well via lecture.

The end result of that discovery is that I was able to engage with the intimidating paper on a level that I’m happy with; I found structural issues to comment on, and did so in a manner that doesn’t have me looking like a simpleton. But man, after looking through all the papers I’ve graded this week, lemme just reinforce what a good thing it is I don’t use red ink. (Back when I was first starting this whole teaching venture, a good friend’s mother gave me one piece of advice that she felt was invaluable: knowing how chatty I am in commentary, do not under any circumstances grade in red ink. The papers would be handed back looking like they’re dripping blood, and that’s just not friendly. So now, people get grapes back…)

Beyond getting all my papers graded, I refreshed on the reading (although not as well as I would have liked; Taylor is complicated, and few people seemed to understand him – presenting myself in a light of having fully understood feels like cheating), and got “omgrough” draft of my grant application finished. I’m already thinking about how to change it, so it will be a long day of editing in gap times. I’m still not certain I can actually finish it in time for the deadline, but I’m going to try – if nothing else for the practice. There’s another round of funding in January if I really blow it this time, so it’s not a dreadful level of pressure (although getting funded now would certainly be better than then). I mostly just want to perform well so that I can get a “good” out of Phillip – the things I’ll push myself to do (like only getting 3 hours of sleep) for a little ego stroking.

At least I know what motivates me.

The Abyss

So, I have to write a four page paper, double spaced, Times New Roman 12 point font. In this paper, I have to include the question my research plans to address, from whence the question arises, scholarly debates around it, the previous literature on the question, my working hypothesis, sources and methodologies, the importance of the project, talk about the educational benefits to both the research and the project, how I am contributing to the field, how my mentor guides me and supports my research, a detailed description of how the project fits into the bigger picture (of life, I guess), write it for the intelligent generalist, talk about the implications of the work, allow my passion and “voice” to show, and address challenges to the work.

…I’m sorry. Please to be giving me a 250 word limit for an abstract. I’ll take that over this any day of the week.

…this is where we see if Karen’s writing methods pays off. I’m just going to tackle a question, answer it, and go on. First draft is a first draft, and I can ditch the entire thing if I need to. Just start writing. Just start writing, and don’t let the abyss eat you whole.